Children’s Backpacks – The Lack of Drive & Energy to Change


Backpacks should never weigh more than 10 – 20% of the child’s weight.

That’s the strong and firm recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In India at least. i would reckon that the angst about the weight of children’s school bags has roiled around for at least 15 years, and yet there’s still all the evidence that little has changed and that those bags are still way too heavy.

It’s become one of those problems and challenges where everyone seems to agree it’s wrong, but everyone is waiting or demanding that someone else should take the action to solve the issue. In the meantime, children keep suffering as everyone blames someone else.

There have been some creative attempts to solve the issues. I was aware of a textbook publisher in the South of India who replaced the separate textbooks for English, maths and Science in Primary classes with combined books for Term 1, Term 2 and Term 3. The idea was that the child would just need to carry the one book. The idea had limited success. People somehow believed that knowledge is compartmentalized according to subjects and therefore were not completely comfortable with these combined books. Teachers sometimes wanted to jump around the syllabus and not be tied to the earlier decisions about allocating the work across the three terms. Then, when exams came around they wanted the children to carry all of the books.

Here’s a recent article that highlights some of the issues – issues that really don’t seem to have changed much over so many years:
MSN – Mom Article – Here’s What Happens When a Child’s Backpack is Too Heavy

There are some key issues that people need to own up to if solutions are to be found;

a) Teachers retain their freedom to shift lessons around at short notice, so children can’t leave books at home and simply take to school the ones for the scheduled classes for that day. The more chaotic the scheduling and planning in schools, the more books the children carry each day – to avoid getting in to trouble. Teachers, all too often, don’t tell children to bring all the books related to the subject because they KNOW all the books will be required, but to retain maximum convenience for themselves.

b) Where lockers are provided to children, too often they’re not convenient or the timetable doesn’t permit sufficient time to use them. Or, quite simply, they’re not taught the skills and benefits of effective planning. I’ve seen too many situations where the lockers were in classrooms. So, if the room is engaged, students can’t enter to access their locker.
Even going back to when I was in school (and that was a very long time ago!) the timetable was set up with lessons in blocks of two (never more than three). The expectation was that we collect and carry the books for the lessons in that block. So, you didn’t have to go back between the lessons when there wasn’t time. It was my responsibility to plan this correctly. Between those blocks of lessons there was ample time to go and get books. So, if I was late to a lesson because I left getting my books until too late or arrived with the wrong books, that was also my responsibility. That said, human error happens and it’s through making mistakes that we get better. Missing a book occasionally is not the end of the world, but we can learn from it.

c) The first day of a new term/ academic year is one of the worst for heavy bags. Too often we see children carrying everything. Teachers can plan for this by providing information to parents and students about what to carry with the aim to bring everything gradually over the first two to three days. We’ve done this effectively in some schools where I’ve worked with the leadership team in the past. It was necessary to plan accordingly in age appropriate ways (for example making sure that the entire contents of the bag didn’t go back home at the end of the first day!)

d) There are similar issues about the end of the term/ academic year. The entire content of a child’s locker need to go home generally (or at the parents’ insistence). If we know this, we need to plan for it to avoid a last day when the children will carry a bag bulging with every piece of scrap paper and bag built up in the locker over a whole term Again, in the past, I’ve been involved in situations where communication with parents and the children ensured that the contents of lockers were first tidied and sorted and then moved home over two to three days at least. This effectively spread the weight burden.

e) The article advocates trolley bags as a way to avoid the issue of bag weight. In my experience this isn’t a good solution – in fact, it can make the situation worse, because all restraint on what goes in to the bag goes away. As stated trolley bags also don’t work when children need to go up or down stairs. This also troubles children when getting in and out of vehicles. There’s a bigger issue with younger children that lead us to outlaw these bags in at least one of my past schools – the potential for children to run over each others’ legs and feet, causing at least hurt if not injury.

f) Parents who want everything to go home every Friday pose a challenge and make themselves part of the problem instead of part of the solution. I’ve seen this quite frequently, often tied to their own perceptions that to prove themselves as effective caring parents who take a personal interest in their child’s learning need to go through the books at least once a week. Sadly, too often, I’ve seen these occasions lead to children dreading the weekend, feeling the need to defend their teacher and getting stuck between home and school. I’m sure few of these parents micromanage employees in their workplaces in such ways, yet they do it with their child and the teachers! Children learn to own their learning better by less frequent reviews of their learning. I prefer twice a term student-led conferences where the child gets to present the work they’ve been doing and reflect on their own learning with the teacher and parent.

g) Being cool is highlighted in the article, but especially in secondary schools is a massive issue around school bags. I remember being particularly frustrated in Bangladesh where the older boys wore their bags with the straps loosened off to the maximum so that it bounced below their bum. The strain they were doing to their backs was awful to see, all on the pursuit of peer pressure, being cool and fitting in. I used to applaud those who had the sense and personal strength to not feel the need to go along with the silliness.  The ‘one shoulder’ thing is also an issue.
Ultimately, the way to address this issue sits alongside so many others where peer pressure causes children to engage in behaviours that are not in their best interests. We can’t necessarily win all the time, but as parents and educators we need to do all in our power to stress individuality and the strength to pursue goals and objectives through independent thought, rather than going along to get along. That’s an issue for another blog post!

The reality is these heavy bags are harming children and have been doing so for many years. We haven’t done enough to address the issues and past solutions aren’t going to be enough. It’s going to require that parents and teachers care enough and combine their care for the children to create effective solutions.

School Lunch

I think school lunches matter.

There are a number of reasons;

Firstly, in the way that most schools structure their days there is precious little time for the school to come together as a community informally – lunch is one such occasion. Next, the fact that all sit down together, to eat together the same food is a great leveler and teaches children to value each other and the other people around them. There’s pretty damning evidence that the average child’s diet at home and outside the school day is not serving them well, especially where they are making the majority of the decisions. Therefore, school provided, nutritionally balanced meals really make a difference.

An additional and very important reason is because sitting down to a pre-ordained meal in the school teaches children to ‘eat to live’, rather than getting tempted in to ‘living to eat’ and also encourages them out of fussy eating habits and narrowly defined food choices. Tragically, in an Indian context, I’ve seen examples of youngsters whose food tastes became so narrowly defined that they were rendered almost incapable of going to study overseas.

As this article highlights, the quality of the meals provided does matter and it is important that the rigorous work is done with nutritionists etc. to make sure that the meals given really contribute to better health for the children;

New York Times – The Real Problem With Lunch

%d bloggers like this: